Tuesday, 1 May 2012

April showers bring forth May flowers..?

It’s just possible looking outside the window on this, the last day of April, that May could – could - begin warm and sunny. And this would be very welcome for any May Day revelries in the Dales this bank holiday weekend.

When will we see the first may flower?

As flowers emerge and crops begin to grow, the start of May has traditionally been a time of great celebration in rural areas, marking the end of the harsh winter months and looking forward to the fruitful summer months ahead.

Associated with all things fertile and green, it’s no wonder that plants and trees play a key role in the fun - and superstitions.

In England, May Day (1 May) was associated with the blooming of the may tree (hawthorn) but since the calendar changed in 1752 flowering now takes place a week to ten days later. 

Dancing round the maypole in Long Preston

Having been out ‘a-maying’ the night before to gather what was needed, homes and villages would have been decorated with flowers and greenery in the belief that this would bring good fortune. Young women washed their faces with morning dew to make themselves beautiful for the rest of the year and would create garlands of flowers and foliage – with one girl chosen as May Queen to be crowned during the celebrations.

On a darker note, country people lived in fear of evil spirits, devising many ways of keeping them out of their houses, and May Day was no exception with faeries and witches said to be particularly busy. Surrounding your home and garden with plants known to repel them and send a firm warning message was a good start. The two most powerful trees were rowan – known as witchwood in Yorkshire and Cumbria - and hazel, and it made sense to pin branches to the front door and tie twigs to the milking pail in case they tried to turn the milk sour.

A foolish person might also ignore the ancient advice that one shouldn’t buy a broom in May or wash a blanket, and that cats born this month were, sadly, not destined to be good rat catchers.

And if you’ve an inclination at this time of year to make some vitamin-packed nettle tea or soup, folklore states that the leaves should be picked before 1 May because after that the Devil uses them to make his shirts. You have been warned.

Finally, don’t forget, ‘ne`er cast a clout till May is out’. In other words, don’t take off your winter clothes until the end of the month - or until the mayflower has finished flowering. Whichever way you interpret it, even the sturdiest of Yorkshire folk might want to wait a few weeks before breaking out the shorts!  

For more on rural traditions and way of life in Yorkshire, why not pay the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes a visit this bank holiday weekend? Opening times and info at www.yorkshiredales.org.uk/dcm 

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